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Getting stopped in your tracks…

June 29, 2017

Occasionally you come across a new writer – more accurately you discover a new writer for yourself – who stops you in your tracks.

And you get that giddy silly feeling all over again.

You know the feeling. When you first come across a writer and you are immediately ensnared in their story. Made especially delicious because I had never heard of them before.

Growing up on a farm there were a lot of writers and thinkers I had never heard of, and so now, thinking back, I still remember where I was the first time I came across writers who moved me. I used to think of them as the books that made me vibrate.

When I was a 19-year-old archipelago about to leave my eastern Ontario childhood to fly to Saskatchewan to 1) work on a reservation and 2) then fly on to Indonesia where I work on some rural agricultural projects (through Canada World Youth), a 30-year-old friend of one of my uncles gave me two books to take with me.

He told me they weren’t the greatest books he had ever read, but he thought that I might find them interesting. I remember at the time thinking “what the fuck would I do with two books?”.

The only books I had seen up to that point in my life were my dad’s Louis archipelago and my my mom’s Harlequins, and those that were force-fed us by a bitter spinster of an English teacher I had in high school. (She scared a great deal of us farm children off ever reading again.)

Of the two book, I started reading Atlas Shrugged while living in Prince Albert and working on a wild rice program at the Little Red River reserve.

You can say whatever you want about Ayn Rand and her fascist politics, but any intelligent ambitious person can identify  with Dagny Taggart and Hank Reardon, the two protagonists of Atlas Shrugged, and all the incompetent bureaucrats, inept parasitical politicians, and egotistical assholes of the world who get in your way.

The game is stacked in favor of complete mediocrity and mindless conformity – and it’s practically a superhuman task to break free from it.

Imagine then watching Indigenous communities dealing with the local white community and with white politicians – while reading Atlas Shrugged?

The provincial government of the time didn’t like how much money the reservation’s wild rice project could potentially make for the community (“they wouldn’t know how to spend it “properly”), and when a local 17-year-old Cree girl made the local news because she signed a big fashion contract, two white girls slashed her face one day soon after in the bathroom of a Prince Albert high school.

Talk about Greek Tragedy!

I read the second book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) while living in a hand-to-mouth remote village in the Indonesian archipelago. A six hour jet ride from the capital Jakarta, a 24 hr boat ride from there, and a 2 hr drive into the jungle, you then come to a village where the local officials were more concerned with making sure everyone went to prayer 5 times a day than if everyone had enough to eat.

Robert Pirsig, the author of ZAMM, was the first “thinker” I had ever read. He laid out many ideas that up to that point I had only ever intuited, or maybe glimpsed but never understood in any real way. There was a straight line from first reading Pirsig at 19, and then being the first in my entire family tree to go to university 6 years later.

He was the first who deconstructed for me such fundamental questions as “what are we doing as a society?”, “where are we going?”, “what does quality of life mean?”, “where do we come from as a culture, what is our History?”

To ask these questions while in a village where for the first three weeks I was there all everyone had to eat was a twice daily meal of white rice and a small portion of fried fish; where your closest source of drinking water was a 2km walk away – which, for the villagers was a walk of great communal pleasure – Pirsig’s questions of what does Quality mean blew the top of my head off.

One morning in the village I was invited to sit in the circle while a new baby was baptized into the village. Two weeks later the baby died of a simple fever. The village went about its business. The children chased a big lizard that had tried to eat one of the chickens.

The villagers were furious with me, early on, when one day I had decided to walk to the local beach and go for a swim. The family I was staying with explained to me that I had insulted the water Gods for not first asking permission, that very bad things could have happened t me, and to the village for such arrogance and stupidity.

Quality of Life?

What does it mean?

Anyway, a long digression from the idea of discovering new authors, and how they can stop you in your tracks.

Which brings me to Rachel Cusk.

Harper’s Magazine recently had an excerpt from Cusk’s new book Transit; I was caught in the headlights of an on-coming train.

Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Guy Davenport – Rachel Cusk.

They write like surgeons.

Dissecting the space between poetry and prose.

Fascinated by human behavior, metaphor, of like imitating art. Sorrow. Loss. Memory. Love.

Masters of Refuse. Dissecting the baggage, curious about everything.

According to the Greeks we all thought like this once upon a time. Hebrew scripture suggests the same. Apparently we have been forgetting ever since.

It was John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards where Saul blamed the art of forgetting on Aristotle. Or rather, that because Aristotle wanted to bring order to the apparent chaos around him, he set out to classify everything. We have carried that mantle of clarification ever since, further losing ourselves from the big picture of life, increasingly focused only on the minutia of sub-categories 8 times removed from the main heading.

How can we understand the question “quality of life?” when we now don’t even know what the word quality means? How can you know anything about anything if you don’t have a basic undergraduate degree in etymology?

Kundera. Dostoevsky. Garcia. Borges. David Foster Wallace. I remember exactly where I was when I first discovered these writers.

To come full circle – 30 years after I left the farm for that reservation – to sit on the farm porch and read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrimage to Tinker Creek!

Right after having studied Lao Tzu, and the Chinese masters.


Rachel Cusk.

I’ve only read the first chapter…








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